“Her students’ papers fluttered across the road”, I read, nerves mounting as I came to the end of my piece of writing, “veering up over car windscreens and pirouetting in the vortices of a blustery wind.” I looked up at the audience in front of me – the two course tutors, the other participants and the centre director’s Labrador retriever – and waited for their reaction. Thankfully, apart from the dog, they clapped appreciatively. There were a few generous words from Mavis Cheek and Paul Sussman, the two professional writers who had guided us all superbly through my first course at the Arvon Foundation’s centre at Totleigh Barton in Devon. Then, having taken my turn at the writer’s chair, I returned to my place on one of the saggy sofas placed around the stone walls of the ancient barn to listen with my own appreciation to my fellow tutees and what they had written. That Friday night celebration was a wonderful culmination of an inspirational week, one that thanks to the insights and kindness of Mavis and Paul had opened up a new, more hopeful world of discovery and opportunity.
The previous Friday, the 20th of November 2009, was very different. I spent it in the open-plan offices of the Met Office in Exeter trawling frantically through thousands of emails that had been stolen from a good colleague of mine. I needed to check whether claims being made about them, of scientific malpractice in the development of global temperature records, were true. They weren’t. It was a big relief, if not a great surprise, but I sensed that climate sceptics were going to make mischief with those stolen emails. And so it proved. The controversy soon to be dubbed climategate caught fire in the mainstream media, derailed crucial climate negotiations in Copenhagen the following month, and drove the scientist at the heart of it all almost to suicide. For those of us hoping that the scientific evidence we had found about the reality of climate change would lead to reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, the confected emails scandal was a huge setback.
I had been working to identify the fingerprints of human influence on the atmosphere and oceans since 1996, travelling to conferences, writing papers and contributing to the influential reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that assess the latest state of scientific knowledge. On Friday 2nd February 2007, I was present in Paris at the unveiling of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, perhaps the best attended and most widely reported press conference in the history of climate science. As we waited for the headlines to be announced – including the stark statement “Warming is Unequivocal” – we scientists who had worked long hours the previous days finalising the report chatted light-heartedly with the reporters waiting expectantly behind us in the packed hall. We had amassed vital new evidence and now people were sitting up and taking notice. Our celebratory mood in Paris reflected our belief that the world was about to take action to prevent dangerous climate change.
But it wasn’t to be. The much anticipated Copenhagen meeting failed. False balance in the media – of matching climate scientist against climate sceptic as if what they had to say deserved equal weight – continued to confuse the public. And all the while the costs of weather disasters continued to rise, in lost lives, livelihoods and prospects.
It took even stronger findings in the next IPCC report in 2013 – on which I also worked – and another political meeting, in Paris in 2015, for climate action to get back on track. It took the people directly affected by weather disasters, that they themselves could see were not natural, demanding change. And it took a young Swedish activist called Greta Thunberg to galvanise people into realising what the latest science really means: that in 2020 time is running out, that human carbon emissions need to be driven down fast, all the way to zero over the next thirty years.
At Totleigh Barton in 2009, Paul Sussman had inspired me to try my hand at writing a fictional climate change thriller. But although I enjoyed the challenge, I realised that not only was the task overly daunting, what I really wanted to do was write about my own experiences. Over the last twenty five years, I have seen a lot. I have seen how our scientific understanding has developed, from detecting the first signs of unusual warming in weather records, to being able to pin the blame for recent heatwaves directly on human activities. I have seen how climate sceptics have obscured the true picture on climate change by their false claims that global warming has stopped or that weather events remain unaffected. And I have seen what climate change means to people who are bearing the brunt of recent weather disasters, such as the man I met in Hobart, Australia whose house had burnt to the ground from forest fires only the week before. What I have seen of the battle to halt climate change going on behind the scenes felt like a story worth telling.
To help me, I went back to Arvon in 2016, this time to their centre at The Hurst in Shropshire and took a course on popular science writing. Once again I benefited from the insights of two remarkable writers and teachers – Aarathi Prasad and Michael Brooks – and the companionship of a group of fellow enthusiasts, although this time without a dog. I left, set firmly on the non-fiction path of writing. And after attending yet another memorable Arvon course to help keep me inspired, this time a wonderfully quirky exploration of hybrid writing at the Lumb Bank centre in Yorkshire under the expert guidance of another two remarkable writers and teachers – Tania Hershman and Maria Fusco – I found a literary agent to take me on, Andrew Gordon at David Higham Associates. A few months later, I signed a contract for future publication with Atlantic Books.
Three Fridays, three contrasting emotions:
2nd February, 2007 – relief that our scientific testimony about the reality of global warming was being taken seriously.
20th November 2009 – dread at what the climate sceptics would do to derail negotiations to reduce emissions based on unfounded allegations about stolen emails.
27th November 2009 – hope in the possibilities of writing, that bringing my story to a wider audience could help build a growing public awareness of the ever more pressing need to tackle climate change.
It’s a hope that echoes still through the Fridays beyond, the day of the week when I tend to find most time to work on my book, Hot Air.